Bob Baker's Indie Music Promotion Blog

Music marketing ideas for DIY artists, managers, promoters and music biz pros


February 07, 2005

What's Wrong with American Idol?

(Bob Baker's updated manifesto on how the popular show is creating widespread misconceptions about what it takes to succeed as a musical artist today.)


It's one of the most popular TV shows of recent years, drawing tens of millions of viewers every week. Even I admit, American Idol is fun to watch. The show provides all the elements of good pop culture entertainment: passion, emotion, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, dreams attained and lost ...

So, what's wrong with American Idol?

Considering it's lumped into the "reality" TV category, the show is doing a great disservice to aspiring musicians (and the public at large) by distorting perceptions of how the music business really works. It sends an outdated message of dependence on the industry vs. the more realistic independence that artists have today to control their own careers.

For instance, the program leads you to believe that there are hundreds of people like Simon, Paula and Randy out there searching for raw talent they can mold into the next big pop star. Not true. Sure, record companies employ A&R people whose job it is to sign and nurture new artists -- but as major labels consolidate, cut staffs and get nervous about the bottom line, they no longer have the time or money to develop new acts.

Instead, they look for artists who are already developing themselves, attracting fans and selling CDs on their own. There's less risk with an act that has a track record.

Also, the American Idol auditions, in particular, create the illusion that most aspiring musicians lack talent and are delusional, struggling and starving. In reality, there are thousands of talented performers across the country who make good money, have hundreds of devoted fans and are steadily building careers.

Here's just one example of this modern reality: Over the past seven years, the web site CD Baby has sold more than $12 million worth of CDs (1.3 million units) by independent, unsigned acts. A tremendous amount of quality music is being produced and sold outside the mainstream.

One of the biggest myths American Idol propels is that you need the approval of industry gatekeepers to "make it" in music. Sorry, you don't need Simon's or anyone else's permission to be worthy of a career in music. If you wait for someone to give you the green light to create and perform music, you'll be waiting a long time.

Too many musicians claim they need to be "discovered" or given a "big break" to succeed. That kind of thinking puts control of your career in someone or something outside of yourself. The truth is, artists have a lot more power, tools and opportunities at their disposal than they give themselves credit for.

When aspiring artists see the stellar success of Kelly Clarkson and Clay Aiken, they're led to believe that landing a major recording contract must be the ultimate sign of success. Unfortunately, those singers are the exceptions, not the rule. Only about one in 30 signed acts reach significant enough sales levels to warrant a second CD release, which means nearly 97% of artists with recording contracts fail. Yet, most musicians are still obsessed with getting "industry" approval and think they need a major label deal.

Reality: The smartest musicians understand that building a career independently is the best approach. They promote themselves, book their own shows, produce and sell their own CDs and establish relationships directly with fans. Doing so, they learn the ropes and slowly develop the skills and business savvy needed to reach higher levels of success.

It's misguided for artists to think they need massive exposure and the approval of music industry honchos a la American Idol to succeed. That knee-jerk reasoning is based on a decades-old business model that is gasping its last desperate breaths. It's a new day. Now it's all about self-empowerment. Musicians need to claim their personal power, take their careers into their own hands, promote themselves relentlessly and create their own lucky breaks.

So enjoy American Idol for the "unreality" entertainment that it is. But pursue your dreams with the understanding that you are in complete control of your musical aspirations and development.

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